Technology is constantly evolving and its presence in our lives can no longer be ignored. The challenge lies in making this era of digitalisation a vindication of the so-called “calm technology” to make us freer.
The sound of a coffee pot or a teapot when boiling water is poured in, the lights that indicate whether a public bathroom is occupied or the beep of a microwave are just some examples of what is called calm technology. All these devices or signals are part of our daily routine and doing without them would be almost unthinkable. But rather than causing some of the evils derived from the misuse of technology, such as “techno-stress” or nomophobia, these were born to be silent and interfere in the least possible way in our lives or even make it a little more comfortable.
The so-called calm technology is not a recent phenomenon, just look at the examples cited, but it is becoming increasingly necessary to return to the time when humans dominated machines and not they us. In 1995, two scientists from the Xerox Parc Research Center in Palo Alto (California), Mark Wiser and John Seely Brown saw the path that Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) were taking. These are the parents of the term calm technology, a concept that alluded to the need that technology, increasingly present and complex in our lives, should make the connections and interactions with it simpler.
This line of work is what experts like the cyber-anthropologist Amber Case, a member of the Berkman Klein Internet Center for Harvard University and promoter of caseorganic.com, continue to follow. On this platform, together with her famous talks at congresses, Case gathers the basic principles that should govern the calm technology in the present and make this a philosophy of life that looks again at nature in order to imitate it. In short, Case is committed to making the machines humanised, making them more independent so that we can be freer. This happens (or should happen) in different areas of our routines, physical spaces and even in our leisure time.
Digital devices and their role in calm technology
When we talk about calm technology, it is inevitable to think of the digital devices that we have around us: Smartphones, tablets, laptops … For Amber Case, the evolution of these devices has its good side and another less positive, as is the need for constant connection. On the good side are aspects such as the welcomed voice assistants like Siri in iOS and Bixby in Samsung that are intended to make life more comfortable as physical interaction is reduced and only our voices are required to give an order and let the device in question work.
This might be considered an extension of the previous field, but wearable technology has been designed and developed to act only when it is in contact with our body, which facilitates the basic principle that technology should be at our service and not the other way around. Wearable technology works at our service when it frees us from mental calculations or from neuronal and physical processes more complex to measure. This is the case of wristband quantifiers, smartwatches or even some applications that we can put in our smartphone and that are activated by sensors that measure our steps, calories, kilometres travelled and even SleepCycles.
Simplification also came to the measuring stations, that is, small infrastructures located in the countryside or in urban environments that work for us by analysing particles and other variables such as air quality, meteorological phenomena, noise pollution and allow natural catastrophes to be anticipated. In this case, the stations work by collecting data, creating graphs and databases that are transferred to a central station so that we only interact with them when we need to interpret the reports they prepare.
Road safety and driving assistance
Driving safety is one of the most visible examples of what calm technology has done for us. Firstly, with passive safety such as the external light signals of traffic lights, seatbelts and airbags, passing through the first driving assistants (power steering, ABS) to the current most advanced safety systems such as adaptive cruise control (ACC), lane keeping assist systems (LKAS) or collision mitigation brake system (CMBS).
The future of calm technology in this field now lies in the manufacture of driverless cars, an ever-closer reality. In fact, there are many manufacturers (Volvo, Mercedes, PSA (Peugeot and Citröen, Apple and Google) that have been working for more than a decade to give artificial intelligence to these vehicles capable of taking us, for the moment on safe roads such as motorways, without our needing to lift a finger.
Smart technology in buildings
Calm technology is also present in the infrastructures in which we spend a good part of our time. The detectors, alarm systems and sensors work continuously and calmly analysing parameters, data and behaviour to make buildings and facilities more efficient and safer. Contactless devices using a magnetic strip such as those we have in contact cards are one of the best examples of this calm technology. Also the detectors that allow energy saving in a building based on the number of people inside or the simple light signalling in toilets.
Household automation and electrical appliances
If there is one place where calm technology has been most applied, that is the home and especially the kitchen. In 1960, for example, a revolutionary ally was born to make our lives easier and more comfortable, relieving housewives and househusbands of work: the Thermo Mix. But like this autonomous kitchen, there are other appliances at home that facilitate our household chores, such as the coffee machine, the microwave oven and the intelligent Roomba vacuum cleaner.
Calm technology is in this sense a reality that has been completely integrated in our daily life for decades. Now, the challenge that lies ahead is that the great advances that it constantly experiences must go towards a greater humanisation that allows us to free ourselves from this constant connection. As human beings we must return to the essence of what we are, to contact and real life, while calm technology works but without bothering us.